One of the first questions my friends and family from the Northeast ask me now that I’m in Dallas is: “Have you seen a lot of cowboys??”
“Not really,” I tell them. Sure, some girls and guys walk around wearing cowboy boots or hats, but I have yet to see a full-fledge cowboy or cowgirl roaming the streets of Dallas.
I saw plenty of them, though, while in Fort Worth. When my family came to town last week, we took the 45-minute ride to the Forth Worth stockyards and caught a more traditional, (or shall I say stereotypical?) glimpse of Texas life. Cowboys and cowgirls are a staple of everyday life in the stockyards — not an exception. They ride around on horses and drink beers at bars. They take pictures with tourists and help guide cattle along the main road that runs near the stockyards.
It was a bit of a culture shock seeing them at first, and I couldn’t tell how much of what I saw was authentic, or just for show. It felt a little like walking through Texas’ version of Massachusetts’ Plimouth Plantation. I took a photo with one of the cowboys, and I’ll admit: I looked at him differently than I would have two months ago before stepping foot in Texas. Cowboys and cowgirls, I’ve learned, are not just southern people who wear funny hats and ride big horses. They’re not just buckaroos, cowpokes, cowhands or cowpunchers. They’re men and women who come from a longstanding tradition of hard work, dating as far back as the medieval times in Spain.
Recently, I read a Texas Monthly cover story that helped explain the history of cowboys and the struggles they face in the present day. In the story, Elmer Kelton, the son of a Texas ranger, writes that a cowboy is “a common man in an uncommon profession, giving more than he receives, living by a code of conduct his detractors will never understand.” Since George Bush became president, however, Americans have increasingly referred to cowboys in a derogatory manner, targeting them as lazy loners. The word cowboy, Kelton writes, has become a political epithet that’s “thrown around as a pejorative, hijacked by pundits and politicians to refer to arrogant, reckless types who go it alone.”
I came to Texas with my own preconceived notions of what cowboys and cowgirls were like, without ever really knowing who they are, what they do, or how their way of life originated. Being willing to learn more about them and see them for myself, even if it was in a touristy setting, helped me assess my biases. I might not see cowboys and cowgirls in my everyday life in Dallas, but I now have a greater understanding of, and appreciation for, who they are and how they live their lives.